By now it’s pretty much part of my racing routine. A few days after running a race, I’ll get the email directing me to my race photos, which I will then follow (even though I know what awaits me, because I am a masochist), and then I will click through my race photos with a growing sense of dismay and horror that supplants the feelings of pride and badassery that once occupied the part of my brain dedicated to feelings about that particular race.
Here, listen in my brain as my internal Anna Wintour starts in with the inevitable litany of criticism. What am I doing with your face? Why does your face look like a big, shiny eggplant? That top makes you look like a rectangle – never wear it again. Your thighs look like a waterbed. Your belly is bulging over your shorts. Why are your arms so awkward? Why are you so awkward? Jesus, woman, look at you. How do you even go out in public looking like this?
I still remember, for instance, the time I ran the Bay to Bay 12K a few years ago. It was a big deal for me, as I had basically run from one end of the county to the other with only a couple of brief walk stops at water stations. It was an unbearably hot and muggy day, so I’d taken off my shirt and dumped water on my head and did pretty much everything I needed to do to make sure I crossed that finish line. I was feeling pretty fabulous after the race for a few days – until I saw my race photos that were taken near the finish line. My hair was plastered against my face, which had turned the approximate shade of red known as “Sunburned Tourist,” my belly was hanging slightly over my waistband and I had this slightly deranged look on my face.
I took one look at the photo and immediately deflated. To this day, my overriding emotional memory is not of pride or excitement in running the Bay to Bay, but rather embarrassment that I did so while looking like such a wretch. That embarrassment was so strong that it took a few years before I felt comfortable running without a shirt on again.
This is not an uncommon experience, by the way. There’s a reason why this photo makes the rounds among runners every so often:
Race photos seem to be so universally reviled that for a while I actually thought race directors should just do away with them all together. Why torment us? Is it not enough that we paid money to run around in circles in the predawn hours? Does this not mark us as slightly idiotic as it is? Must we have photographic proof of that idiocy preserved for posterity’s sake? And really, as if many of us need anything else to make us feel any more self-conscious than we already do.
I’d been racing for about five years before my opinion finally started to change. What did it was a photo taken of me as I ran out of the water during the Escape from Fort DeSoto triathlon earlier this year. Here, check out the photo:
The photo is kind of goofy, yes? I mean, beneath the watermark, my mouth is half open, with my jaw slack and my cheeks flopping loosely. The hot pink on my wetsuit clashes with the fluorescent yellow and aqua of my tri top, which clashes with the construction-sign orange of my swim cap. And I just don’t even know what to say about the swim cap situation on my head. It makes me look like a freaking Conehead. (I come from France.) By traditional aesthetic standards, it’s kind of a mess, and not even in the Monet sense.
That doesn’t keep me from loving the shit out of this photo. I look at this photo and I don’t see all of the things that an art critic would find wrong with it. Instead, I look at this photo and I remember how I felt when it was taken. I had just completed a swim leg in which I never once flipped over for a backstroke. I felt strong and powerful through the whole swim leg, and when I finished my swim and started charging through the surf, I remember feeling a little bit like a Bond girl. (I just needed a dagger strapped to my thigh, and also cleavage.) And the look on my face, while hardly model perfect, is still beautiful to me because of the intensity and focus I’m exhibiting in this moment. I don’t normally get to see myself looking this way. When I do see myself, it’s to check to make sure I don’t have pepper in my teeth or to put on some mascara before going to work. It’s not while in the middle of doing something tough and physical.
The fact that I love this photo, as goofy as it is, as much as I do caused me to pause and consider all of the other race photos I’ve taken, especially the ones I disliked. And I realized that I did not like those photos for a very simple reason: they were not pretty. I was not pretty in them. In fact, I kind of look scary in a lot of them. I am not one of those people who usually remembers to wave at the camera and smile, often because I am too focused on racing to pay the photographer much mind. As a result, my photos usually show me looking really intense, like concentrated Bitchy Resting Face, and not at all graceful or poised or any of the other qualities we generally associate with good photos of women.
When I am in the middle of competing, I am a beast. I am scary. I am everything but pretty.
I was shocked when I realized just how thoroughly I had internalized the idea that I must look pretty at all times, even when competing in athletics. The idea had been so deeply ground in my psyche that when I was confronted with photographic evidence of my not-prettiness, my reaction was shame and embarrassment, as if I had done something wrong by showing not-pretty sides of myself in public, like I had broken the social compact that says I get to exist in public spaces provided I don’t offend anyone’s aesthetic sensibilities in the process.
What made this even more disconcerting is that I consider myself to be a woman who is not particularly vulnerable to cultural beauty standards. I mean, I don’t wear a lot of makeup, I often go to work with my hair in a wet ponytail, I schlub around in flip-flops and tank tops, and my nail polish is usually chipped. I’m kind of lazy about this stuff and I don’t feel bad about it, because I think it’s bullshit that women are expected to do all of this extra stuff to be considered presentable while guys can splash some water on their heads and be just fine.
And yet there I am, cringing over the fact that photos taken of me as I run the twelfth mile of a 13.1-mile race aren’t pretty.
When I put it like that, the whole thing seems silly. I mean, no shit I’m not going to look pretty when I’m racing. I have other things on my mind at the time than how I might look compared to the imaginary Perfect Woman that lurks omnipresently in the minds of many women. I’m sweaty, I’m spitting and shooting snot rockets, I’m fishing my shorts out of my butt crack, I’m probably in pain, I’m focused on getting my ass across that finish line as fast as I possibly can. I am too busy being and doing to care how I look to others. It’s only when I see the photos – when I have the opportunity to see myself as others might see me – that I am taken out of myself as the subject of my life and start seeing myself as an object to be looked at.
I think I knew that on some level, which is why I objected to the very existence of race photos for the longest time. But what I’m now coming to understand is that the problem isn’t with the photos themselves but with the way I am interpreting them. The photos were problematic to me because I wanted to look at them and see photos that conveyed attractiveness, poise, symmetry and elegance, but instead I saw messiness, scariness, awkwardness and not-prettiness. (I am not using the word “ugly” because I don’t feel the photos are ugly. They just aren’t pretty.)
That is a psychological fight I am never, ever going to win, because, as Sam at Fit, Feminist and (Almost Fifty) puts it, the values of conventional femininity are directly contradicted by the physical demands of sports performance. I am not willing to sacrifice my performance as an athlete for the sake of looking pretty, and so rather than hating my race photos for not meeting that standard of prettiness set by the imaginary critic in my head, I’ve decided that I will be much better off if I start evaluating my photos by different standards, perhaps according to the experience I was actually having at the time of the photo. (Plus, it’s worth remembering that we don’t owe prettiness to anyone. Prettiness is not the price we have to pay to have the right to exist in public, okay?)
You know, I shouldn’t say this is silly. It’s actually quite understandable. I mean, we live in a world where female athletes – and women in general – are constantly being evaluated in terms of their looks. We don’t have to look beyond this past weekend to see that. Marion Bartoli wins Wimbledon and one of the first things a commentator remarks upon is how she isn’t “a looker.” It happens so often that it’s become cliche at this point. This conversation usually cycles around professional female athletes, but it occurred to me while reading about Marion Bartoli and stewing on this post that there is no reason why amateur female athletes like myself should be assumed to be immune to this pervasive expectation.
In fact, I think the fact that so many of us look at our race photos and cringe because we failed to be pretty or beautiful in them is just one of the many negative ramifications of the wider social obsession with the appearances of female athletes. Maybe we aren’t consciously making that connection, but I think a lot of us do hear what is said about professional female athletes – especially ones who are not conventionally attractive – and maybe deep in our hearts we think that if this is what is said about a professional elite athlete, what on earth are other people thinking about us?
I don’t want to let that mindset win, and so I’m doing what I can to resist it. Learning to like my race photos may not keep Twitter bros from keening whenever they are forced to look at a woman who doesn’t give them a stiffy, but it’s certainly a start.